Monday, January 26, 2015

Haunted: the home town that lives in my head

We lived at 20 Victoria Avenue, Chatham, Ontario, Canada. Such a long handle, and a strange place.

I just had the urge to dig out some photos of the place. Plenty strange, but a beautiful old Edwardian-era house previously owned by the unmarried Terry sisters.

Since I first posted a different version of this piece a couple of years ago, a wealth of old Chatham photos has emerged from the vast wonderland of Google images. Thus fuzzy memories are brought into sharp relief, a new phenomenon that must be changing the human brain in some fundamental way (oh, THAT was what the church looked like! I thought it had windows on that side. Etc.) But nobody has noticed that yet. When I hear even the most insignificant names attached to Chatham, I get the queerest feeling, almost an ecstasy, but at the same time a longing so intense that it scares me. Oh, I want to go back, go back to when it was simpler, when milk was delivered by horse and wagon and Milky the Clown entertained us instead of Spongebob and Phineas and Ferb.

Plenty of the old houses in Chatham looked haunted, and very ugly. I used to wonder how anyone could live there. I remember sloshing along in rubber boots, walking home to have lunch (fried eggplant, if I was lucky) and watch Popeye. These were the vintage Popeyes made in the early 1930s, which I didn't see again until I found the DVD re-release a couple years ago.

It's all a pastiche or jigsaw or something. Making story means imposing order, usually, an order that really isn't there. So I won't make story today. Wait a minute. These weren't boots at all, but boot covers, something like the ubiquitous "galoshes" (talk about onomatopoeia!) that we all wore to protect our shoes. They leaked like mad, but that's what we did. Ladies wore little plastic bonnets to protect their hair, something like a shower cap.

I remember a bit of a song about pigeons with pink feet. Never mind. A capital ship for an ocean trip was the Walloping Window Blind. . .

Sugar beets. I remember the burny intense smell of sugar beets being processed into sugar. It reminded me of my Mum making something delicious called Burnt Sugar Pudding, a caramelized confection with a velvety texture. In those days, no one had to limit emissions in any way. There was the Lloyd (no kidding, it was really called Lloyd!) jute bag company. I didn't know what a jute bag even was until someone told me, "Dummy, it's a burlap sack."

And then there was Darling's, the most hideous smell in the world. This was most evident on the infamous sweatbox days of a Southwest Ontario summer, when the fumes were held down by a heavy lid of humidity. It was stomach-turning, a mixture of guts and hides and bones. They used to tell me it was a slaughterhouse, but no slaughterhouse could smell that bad. Later on my brother told me it was a rendering plant, i.e. glue factory: so maybe that's why no one told me the truth, so I wouldn't scream with horror that horses were being melted down so our postage stamps would stay on.

"Horse glue,"my husband said 200 years later. I thought about it. I was licking the boiled-down gluten of an old horse, maybe a retired racehorse with a blown tendon. It didn't bear thinking about.

What else?

thump-thump, thump-thump. . . no, more like a "stock-stock-stock-stock", some sort of factory. God, Chatham seems now like it seethed with industry.

Plack. Plack. A neighbor, an old man named Salem Aldiss, used to take a flexible board and bend it back and let it snap on the cement. Hordes of starlings would shoosh up and blacken the sky, but soon they'd be back on the trees and powerlines, craaawwww! craaaaaaaw!craaaaaaaaaaw-ing in a vast creepy choir and leaving splats of guano that was most unpleasant to try to remove.

I think I bit my neighbor, it's so long ago. Shawne Aitken, Mr. Aldiss's granddaughter, used to come in the summer to stay with her grandparents. She lived in Sault Ste. Marie. I loved Shawne and maybe even had a mild crush on her, but when I was very very little I bit her I think. My mother was required to march me over to her house (only two houses down, not a long march) and apologize. Then Shawne, still a little weepy, gave me a sucker, and we were friends again. (Purple. The best sucker in the bag.)

I thought I was the only child who'd bitten someone in the history of the universe. That memory was squashed so far down in the "shame" bin that, like compacted paper or Jurassic mineral layers, it won't even come out properly. Maybe it's just as well.

There were two Pauls in kindergarten, Paul Sunnen and Paul Tunks. I didn't like Paul Tunks very much, he was fat and obnoxious, but I was in love with Paul Sunnen because he was thin and romantic, and a diabetic. I wasn't even sure what that was - it was called "sugar diabetes" in those days - but  there were whisperings that he had to have needles. We all sat cross-legged in a circle embedded in the linoleum floors of the kindergarten room, and I always sat directly across from Paul Sunnen. We drank milk out of weird-looking little glass bottles and had to have a "milk ticket" to get it.

In kindergarten at McKeough School, we had two elderly spinster teachers, Miss McCutcheon and Miss Davy. In my memory, they are about nineteen feet high. My mother was tall as a sequoia. I remember hanging on to her apron and looking up, far up. Family legend has it that one day my mother said to me, "You don't like me." I answered, "You not bad." This sums up our entire relationship.

What else? Ann Peet, who could be nice to me or awful. They were Dutch and lived next door. They were poor in a much-mended sort of way, but clean and presentable, which my mother approved of. There were a lot of kids, Annie and Susan and Charles and Brian and. . Garnet, named after the mayor, Garnet Newkirk I think. Garnet John Cornelius Peet. When he was born, Ann went door to door to tell everyone, telling us his name was Garden John. Ann's father was in the war in Holland and told stories. Once he told her that the people were so hungry in occupied Holland that a woman ate her baby.

All this somehow made its way into Mallory, my second novel. Not sure how it evolved into such an autobiography. Anyway, Mr. Peet (Cornelius: did anyone call him Corny?) had pigeons, and I liked to climb over the (actual) white picket fence in our back yard and watch them reproduce. I had no idea what was going on and one day asked Mr. Peet what they were doing. "Dancing," he said, with a sly smile. One day I saw him bring home a live chicken in a jute bag (probably from Lloyd's). He grabbed its neck and took a knife and sliced its head off. The chicken's body flapped and convulsed all over the yard, while the beak on the severed head opened and closed.

My parents had dirty books. Under my Dad's underwear in the bureau drawer. My God, I must have had nerve. When they were both at choir practice, I would burrow around and find them. One was called Ideal Marriage and didn't say very much. Another one, much more dirty, was called ABZ and was a sort of encyclopedia of sex, originally published in Sweden or somewhere. There were whole pages that were blanked out that said, "This page has been removed by the publisher for violating obscenity laws," or something like that. They didn't just edit it out, they obliterated it. My Dad sold books and would sell Ideal Marriage to someone under the counter, but where the hell did this one come from - and, more to the point, what the hell was fellatio?

Oh, don't let's get into sex and Carmen Ferrie (she's probably still out there somewhere and is still red-haired and funny and smart and popular). She told me stuff, but I simply didn't believe it. Jesus! Even though I already knew from experience what an orgasm was, it was hard to believe that people would actually want to do that stuff.

I will leave horses aside, as I've covered them thoroughly in other posts. I will also have to leave Bondi for now, though it was a rapturous two weeks out of the year. Bondi hasn't changed a whole lot in all those years, and is still run by the same family, which somehow gives me hope.

Stamping on puddles with the little plastic boot-covers that fastened with a button and a piece of elastic. Plash.Stamp. And best of all - the spring flood, when the pitiless endless aching Ontario winter finally let go and released several tons of water all at once. It shooshed and roared. The street was like rapids. Some of the bigger sidewalk hollows still had ice over them, and it was pure ecstasy to stomp them and see and feel them shatter under your feet. Stamp. Crunch.

Around the corner, oh my god there was a little hill in the sidewalk! A little drop. It seemed like a thousand feet down. I was probably three and riding a tricycle. Is that drop still there? Back then a three-year-old was given complete freedom outside, not even watched. I couldn't ride up the hill and had to drag my tricycle up the grass, but I did it over and over again.

There was a strange church on the corner that said Jesus Saves, the kind of church we didn't go to, thank you very much. Too much singing. There was a sort of bar at the front entrance, and I'd hang off it like a sloth and pretend I was riding a horse that I called "Bet".

Oh and, the pervert in the park. When we were pre-teens, Shawne and I in those endless sweatbox summers went to Tecumseh Park because there was a swimming pool (kind of) and baseball games. I hated baseball but went with her anyway because it was something to do. There was a man, this guy. He had a funny smirky smile. He was sort of like "The Big Fat Man" of our very early childhood, a version of the Boogie Man (a rather fat elderly gentleman whom I am sure was completely harmless. When he saw me, he always said, "Hello, boy.") This guy, the funny smirky guy who looked a bit like Lee Harvey Oswald, just loitered around. He was always just out of eyeshot, and we giggled and ran away, having fun. Jesus, we could have been raped or killed. One time, just one time in the Chatham Daily News, there was a one-paragraph story about a paper boy who had been sodomized (how is this possible? But it's true) by an unknown stranger.

I retain memories of Chatham and feel a kind of bliss, which is weird because my childhood was anything but blissful. My Dad's drinking slowly and inexorably escalated until he became a staggering, booming tyrant. My older sister refused to believe any of my stories. He was a fine upstanding man, a wonderful father. But she hadn't been around him for ten years. She had gone to Europe, as far away as she could get, the other side of the world, even speaking another language that none of us knew. He sent her money. Briefly she acknowledged his alcoholism in a letter, and once told me she found him "oppressive", but she took it all back when I told her I had been sexually abused. The wagons went in a circle, and like all oppressive patriarchs, he was once again crowned with many crowns.

Dylan Thomas, you were wrong, this stuff is all shit, and jumbled as hell. I don't want to make story today. This is my life. I somehow came out of all this jumble. Branch led to branch. It's amazing I am still connected to one friend from those days, a little surreal. All this came from the rather ghastly sight of McKeough School, which I never really looked at because I was too busy marching in to military music.

Post-blog observings: I just realized, as I dug out a previous post about my old church being haunted by the notorious Russell Horsburgh, that all of Chatham-Kent and its surrounding communities is thick with apparitions. No kidding, there are ghost tours you can go on. When my friends and I walked by those old Gothic-looking brick buildings on Victoria Avenue, it would not have been much of a stretch to imagine they were haunted. But I never heard of any ghost tours. My own flirtings with the paranormal have never lead me anywhere significant - nothing has really happened, as far as I am concerned, to convince me that it's anything more than wishful thinking and/or my imagination. We all long to know what is on the "other side", and I suppose being a ghost is better than being nothing at all. Though I can see them wafting in and out of the windows of McKeough School (above), which is supposedly being renovated and used as a heritage site, I kind of hope they stay out of my house. Go back to Chatham where you belong!

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